Families flourish in a neighborhood transformed -- Habitat for Humanity Int'l 1

Families flourish in a neighborhood transformed

Grace Melanie Gonzales and her mother, Nadia, relax at home.

Los Angeles – A lot can happen in 12 years, in a family and in a neighborhood.

A dozen years ago, the Jimmy Carter Work Project partnered with 21 families in Watts, building pastel-colored houses in an area most well-known for a history of riots and crime.

Some onlookers – even some of the new homeowners – considered the venture somewhat risky.

“I had heard a lot of bad things about the neighborhood,” said Toni Nettles, then a divorced mother of three living in a small apartment on L.A.’s Westside. “So I was a little leery at first. But then I thought, ‘I could live anywhere.’ I don’t worry about people bothering me, because I don’t bother anyone.

“I believe in wishful thinking and just praying,” she added. “I just put it in God’s hands.”

And from great risks come great rewards.

Twelve years after moving into Watts, all 21 families are still there, expanding and contracting and expanding again, as families do over time.

Toni and Max, her husband of 10 years, have the distinction of living in a house built with the direct help of a former president and first lady. Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter hammered nails, hauled wood and installed siding on the home, right alongside other volunteers.

“That was the most amazing experience of my life,” Toni said. “I cried the whole time and then for two or three months after that.

“I hated to see President Carter and his wife leave,” she added. “They’re just wonderful, wonderful people.”

More than 1,500 volunteers came from all over the world for the weeklong build on the North and South stretches of East Santa Ana Boulevard. Some of the homeowner families are still in contact with people who worked on their houses, exchanging occasional postcards and season’s greetings.

Francisco Gonzalez, patriarch of a large and loving family, points with pride to a framed photo of L.A. Dodger legend Fernando Valenzuela given to his young son by a volunteer.

“Another volunteer gave the whole family tickets to Magic Mountain,” Francisco recalled. “Lots of people were very nice to us. There are lots of beautiful memories.”
Apparently caught up in the enthusiasm around him, Francisco and assorted uncles, cousins and other relatives put in 784 hours of sweat equity on the family’s home – 284 more than required.

“We liked it so much, we went over,” he said with a shrug.

“That happens a lot,” whispers Sylvia Bautista, family services associate at Habitat for Humanity of Greater Los Angeles. “It’s such a good experience, a lot of people put in a lot more hours than they need to.”

Francisco, a machine operator, and his wife, Graciela, are originally from Jalisco, Mexico, and have five children, ranging in age from 30 to 20. Before 1995, the whole family lived in the garage of his mother’s one-bedroom home in Watts.

Now in their four-bedroom house, Francisco has installed Mexican-inspired ceramic tile on virtually every horizontal surface – and a few vertical ones – in the house. A hand-tinted portrait of young Francisco and Gabriela at their 1976 wedding hangs in the hallway, anchoring a houseful of family photos.

In the garage, where the family likes to sit and swap stories while fish cooks on the grill outside, bright-colored piñatas hang in anticipation of an upcoming birthday celebration.

Back inside the house, Francisco has begun preparing one of the empty bedrooms for the return of one of their daughters and her baby, so she can save money to buy her own house.

“This house is for them, after all,” he said. “When we die, it will stay with the children.”

Families expand and contract and expand again, playing out the life cycle of people and homes.

Maria Tobar, a native of El Salvador, shared a two-bedroom apartment with her husband, Jose Luis, and three children before 1995. Their two sons shared a bedroom, while their daughter slept in a closet.

Now, 12 years later, only one son remains in the family’s Habitat home. Daughter Lisette has been in her own Habitat home, in the nearby city of Lynwood, for two years.

“We are poor people,” said Maria, “but we have everything.”

After traveling to El Salvador recently to visit her sister, Maria has a renewed appreciation for the home she calls her “American dream.”

“I saw so many poor people there,” she said. “They have nothing. They sometimes eat, sometimes no.

“I am a lucky lady,” she said. “I have everything here.”

Family photos take up almost every inch of prime wall space in Maria’s three-bedroom home, and an American flag decal covers one window. Handcrafted wood dishes from El Salvador decorate a kitchen table that could easily seat eight.

Each Habitat house is distinct, and each family makes it even more so, putting personal touches on every precious inch of real estate and acreage.

Toni and Max Nettles set an impressive standard in lawn care, thanks to Max’s 30-plus years of landscaping experience. The couple’s slender piece of yard is an oasis of lush grass, rosebushes, tropical plants and fruit trees.

Max also has installed sprinkler systems at several of his neighbors’ homes, spreading the wealth of vegetation up and down East Santa Ana.

Three doors down from the Nettles’ home, Aleatha and Samuel Prichett tend a meticulously manicured lawn outside and plan their next renovation inside.

“Every time I get a whim for something, he has to do it,” Aleatha said with a smile, pointing to the carpet that will soon be replaced by hardwood floors.

“These are my colors,” she added, showing off the deep earth tones on her living room walls. “I choose the colors, but he gets to do the painting!”

Handy Samuel, who works at Los Angeles International Airport, has installed several ceiling fans and made other cosmetic changes in the four-bedroom house the couple shares with six of their nine children and one grandchild. Before the JCWP, the couple lived with all their children at her mother’s house, about five blocks away.

Aleatha, who has driven a school bus for 18 years, said the Habitat experience taught them both a lot about building and maintaining a house.

“It was hard work,” Aleatha recalled. “But it feels good to build your own house.”

“And someday I’ll get us to the point where I can just relax,” said Samuel. He shakes his head as he’s saying it, obviously skeptical that his wife will ever tire of making changes.

After a lifetime spent renting, usually in one substandard apartment after another, Habitat homeowners typically seem anxious to put an individual stamp on something that is truly theirs.

Lidia Garner and Mitchell Friend continue to add improvements to their Habitat home.

The interior of Lidia Garner and Mitchell Friend’s home on the South side of East Santa Ana looks like something out of a home improvement TV show. Her kitchen has been updated with the cherry cabinets of her dreams, courtesy of an undeniably talented son named Gerald.

“He was 15 at the time,” said the proud mother.

Now Gerald, one of five siblings, is 19. He works for Federal Express while going to school to learn electronics.

Lidia is a recovering alcoholic and addict who has been sober for more than 20 years. She drives a truck for a living, and Mitchell drives a bus. Walking through their home, Lidia points out the light fixtures mirrors and floors the family has put in over the past 12 years.

They even installed a picture window on the front of the house, providing a clearer view of the neighborhood that had given so many people pause when the project began.

As Lidia is showing guests around her house, she gets a visit from Alice Harris, a longtime community activist known in Watts and well beyond simply as Sweet Alice. She has lived in the neighborhood since 1959 and was a driving force in attracting the JCWP there in 1995.

“President Carter will call me every year or so and ask, ‘How are things going down there, Sweet Alice?’ ” she said, smiling. “And I’ll say, ‘Looking good. They’re looking good.’ ”

He keeps an eye on things, she said, just like she does.

“Once you put your heart into something,” she said, “you want to keep up with it.”

Carter was in Los Angeles in March to officially designate L.A. as the site of the 2007 JCWP, and he saw for himself what an impact the 21 homes on East Santa Ana have had on this part of Watts.

“It’s wonderful to come back again and find out that those homeowners have been prosperous, that they’re still in their houses,” Carter told reporters.

In addition to doing heavy lifting at Toni Nettles’ house, the former president and his wife hammered ceremonial nails in all 21 of the Habitat houses on East Santa Ana and at the end of the project gave each new homeowner a Bible bearing both their signatures.

Toni gently thumbs through a photo album documenting every day of construction on her home. In one picture, Rosalynn holds the ladder steady while Jimmy unceremoniously hangs siding.

“There he is,” Toni said quietly. “On the site, he was all business. He only looked up to eat and to take pictures and be on TV occasionally. That was the only time he took a break.

“We ate lunch and dinner together every day,” she added, “like a family.”